Feeds:
Posts
Comments

2014 was an explosive year for volcanic activity on Japan’s mountains. While worldwide attention was focused on the catastrophic eruption of Ontake in late September, an increase of seismic tremors under the Nakadake crater lake on Mt Aso caused a small scale eruption just two months later. This was the start of increased volcanic activity, culminating in the explosive 2016 discharge which sent billowing ash 11,000 meters into the sky, landing as far away as Kagawa on the island of Shikoku. Therefore, the last 6 years have caused a quagmire for the Hyakumeizan hunters, who would either need to break the rules or put their quest on hold before knocking off their final peak.

As a Hyakumeizan alumnus, I do my job to help out a few disciples by offering a bit of advice and, on occasion, an extra set of eyes and ears as I accompany them on their journey up the hallowed peaks. So when Alastair informs me that the restrictions on Mt Aso have now been lifted, I jump at the chance for a revisit to see exactly what nature has done to the peak. Such reopenings of trails on active volcanoes are usually short-lived, so it is definitely a now-or-never mentality as Alastair aims for peak #95 on his ever-shrinking list. Plus, he offers to do all of the logistics, including the driving to the trailhead. All I need to do is to board a train to Kyushu. Who could resist?

We pick up the rental car outside of Kumamoto station on a cloudless morning on the cusp of the Silver Week holiday. Japan has been on unofficial lockdown for most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government seems obsessed with saving the economy at the expense of public health and has introduced a ‘Go to Travel’ scheme that basically involves paying common citizens to travel in Japan. Thus, here we sit in gridlock as half of the island of Kyushu seems intent on visiting the volcano.

Most of the major roads leading through the interior of Kumamoto Prefecture are still being repaired due to 2016 earthquake, meaning there is no easy or fast way to get to Mt Aso. Backroads are rammed bumper-to-bumper with slow-moving vehicles that edge their way along the edge of the outer rim of the volcanic crater, which has a circumference of nearly 114km, making it one of the largest in the world. 90% of the traffic is heading up towards Kusasenri and Nakadake crater, where overpriced restaurants and horse-riding attract throngs of tourists who have mostly kept their distance for the last 6 years. Once past the turnoff, traffic becomes much lighter. While there is a trailhead at Nakadake crater, we opt for the northern approach via Sensuikyo, the trailhead furthest from the active crater. If Aso decides to blow its nose, we have the best chance of survival.

The parking lot is crammed with cars as Alastair secures one of the last empty spaces just after 10am: we had hoped to be on the trail at least an hour earlier, but had not anticipated the traffic. The information center sits dark, shuttered behind locked doors that have likely been gathering dust for at least half a decade. The small toilet complex is unlocked and has fortunately seen a recent cleaning. The slopes just above the restroom are littered with cables dangling from the concrete pillars of the old ropeway system. During my first visit 18 years ago, the gondola was very much still in operation, shuttling lazy hikers a third of the way up the volcano to the edge of the ridge line. There is definitely a post-Sarajevo Olympic vibe here, though the cause of such decay seems to be neglect rather than war.

A path leads straight up the slopes and parallels the ropeway ruins, and it is this concrete path that I used on my first trip to the volcano, but during that time I became intrigued with another route called the Sensui-one spur that climbs a steep ridge just under the Takadake high point. It is along this route that Alastair and I now turn our attention. The trailhead entrance lies on the opposite side of the car park, marked with a small wooded bridge spanning the Sensui ravine. Along broken bits of concrete we initially prance, followed by a narrow path recently cleared of underbrush. The start of the spur is soon reached, offering a refreshing bit of rock-hopping along the weather-beaten pumice.

A generous lathering of yellow arrows delineates the route, but in the overcast autumn skies we can clearly trace the path all the way up to the summit plateau towering 600 vertical meters above. As we climb higher, the vistas across the valley behind us open up to the Kujū mountains rising majestically out of the fertile valley. A giant white stupa constructed near the trailhead feel distinctly southeast Asian, perhaps even Burmese in nature if someone would be kind enough to bring a truckload of gold paint.

Alastair and I make good work of the spur, powered by a self-imposed race against the volcanic gods. One sudden tremor or plume of steam on the horizon would mean a sudden abandonment of our climb and a quick scramble for shelter. Loitering on an active volcano is something that no one should do unnecessarily, so while our plan is to enjoy the hike, we keep the pace brisk and the rests brief.

It takes around 90 minutes to reach the Takadake crater rim – stretched out before us is an older, dormant crater lined with verdant grasses and affording stellar views across to Mt Sobo and Mt Okue to the east. Crisp autumn winds push in from the north, keeping us moving up the final few steps of the pyramidal form of Takadake. A few dozen other hikers lounge around on the summit, while the buzz of a drone pierces the still air. At least the lack of tranquility will (literally) keep us on our toes.

We pick up the track down to a saddle below Nakadake, where the gentle gradient brings thoughts of the Scottish hills to mind. The route takes us towards the active crater of Nakadake, which seems a bit like slipping out of the frying pan and into the fire, but an unforeseen force attracts us towards the pillar of steam billowing from the giant crater.

Continuing south, the first signs of the eruptions present themselves, as the entire landscapes takes on a tinge of brownish-gray dust, staining the signposts as if crafted by a spray gun artist. We are now within the 1km strike zone, an area that no other hikers have visited apart from the several dozen other trespassers staring in goggle-eyed disbelief.

 

The track drops to a narrow saddle and climbs to an overlook uncomfortably close to the active crater, but we push on, spellbound and transfixed like a veteran rubbernecker. Gazing directly down into the hissing crater, I wonder how long it will be before this vista will once again be off limits to all but the most dedicated volcanic researchers.

I turn around and trace my eyes up along the ridge we had just traversed, with the top hat of the Nakadake summit teetering on the edge of the abyss.  A pair of concrete bunkers sit just off the ridge, partially collapsed by the force of the series of powerful eruptions. While these emergency shelters offer protection from small stones, a cataclysmic eruption of the crater would perhaps allow you enough time to send a farewell text to a loved one.

A concrete path used to run from here to the top of the ropeway, but now it is nothing but the remnants of rain runoff with bits of cement piercing through the fresh layer of ash. We reach the top of the ropeway ruins, a structure that would probably have received less damage had it actually been hit by bombs. Perhaps the Nakadake crater showed its discontent by trying to wipe this eyesore off the face of the earth.

Luckily for visitors, the ropeway ceased operations in 2010, meaning no one was actually in the structure during the series of volcanic explosions. While this building may seem like a wet dream for the haikyo hunters, visitors are advised to stay well clear of the incredibly unstable structure, which seems hellbent on collapse with nothing more than a strong gale.

The concrete path that runs alongside the ropeway is slowly being taken by the forces of nature, making the path rather pleasant among the tufts of greenery swallowing the remaining remnants of surfaced walkway. We follow a handful of other hikers down the rolling slopes towards the parking lot.

It would make for a peaceful end to our hike if not for the thumping crescendo of an approaching helicopter. The chopper heads above the summit of Takadake, where a lone figure is winched down to the ground. In conjunction, a sextet of rescue workers ascends at a brisk pace to offer back-up. The lead is connected via radio to the chopper team, who are in the midst of a rescue operation. We give way to the team, offering words of encouragement for what will likely be the first of many missions on this busy holiday weekend.

Once back at the car, we final exhale a sigh of relief. Alastair can now count the remaining Hyakumeizan on one hand and now has everything west of the Japan Alps off his list. Just one peak in Hokkaido, one in Tohoku, and a trio of peaks in the South Alps stand between him and his goal of finishing the 100.

 

The heat of the August sun continues to berate western Japan, sending temperatures into feverish heights and turning every step into a delirious mess of sweat and confusion. If you can’t stand the heat, you clearly need to get out of the kitchen and head to higher ground. A long-overdue revisit to the ‘4th island’ is just what the doctor ordered.

I take an early pre-rush hour train to Kobe to meet Paul, whose 4-wheeled Sedan will shuttle us across the Akashi strait and into the gentle flatlands of the old Awa province. We make good time, rolling into the town of Mima shortly before noon, where a roadside stop of toriten (chicken tempura) alleviates the hunger. We pore over a map of the region, deciding to take the ‘faster’ route 438 to the Tsurugi trailhead, which will allow us for an early check-in and quick afternoon hike before dinner.

Fueled by a cool can of Barista Black, Paul navigates the narrow road away from the valley and along the Sadamitsu river through a narrow gorge dotted with traditional houses clinging halfway up the steep mountain slopes. They appear constructed not by creatures of the human race, for they seem to have been placed there by an alien spaceship rather than carefully constructed by the tools of man. The dwellings are situated on slopes exposed to the sunlight for adequate crop production and, considering the effort it takes just for a trip into town, they must be pretty self-sufficient folk who occupy these isolated refuges.

A signpost for Narutaki falls gives us pause, as we park on the narrow shoulder for a quick gaze at the two-tiered waterfall dropping from an immense height. The falls look tiny from here, and the tourist map indicates a forest road leads to the base of the falls, but in what condition awaits to be seen. At a further turnoff, the tourist literature leads us to Dogama basin, a swift-flowing waterfall that weaves between a narrow band of granite cliffs. The crystal clear waters beg further inspection, and with the full strength of the afternoon sun and temperatures in the mid-30s we head upstream a bit for a natural soak in the buff.

Body heat dissipates immediately, provide much-needed relief and an extra boost of energy for the side trip to Naru falls. The forest road looks to be in immaculate condition, but instead of retrieving the car, we opt for the 700 meter walk along the deserted asphalt. The lower basin of the falls looks inviting, but the buzz of mosquitoes keep us from stripping down. A weather-beaten statue of Fudō Myōō overlooks the towering water, and a side trail takes us up steep switchbacks to the upper basin, whose trickling waters must surely be thundering during the rainy season. Today they appear harmless, except for slick moss-covered rocks that would thwart any attempt to scale to the top of the falls.

Back at the car, the real climb begins, as the road narrows through a series of hairpin turns past an abandoned ski resort and onto the turnoff for our accommodation. After checking in and dropping off our things, we each grab a bottle of water and a camera and hit the trail for the 1700m summit of Mt Marusasa. The map time suggests an hour ascent, but with just 200 vertical meters spread out over 1.7km of track, we make good time through a lush forest of conifers that would not look out of place in the Yatsugatake mountain range. Such unspoiled sections of woods are hard to come by, and with the lingering late afternoon fog, we walk spellbound by their beauty.

The fog continues to escort us above the trees and into a vast meadow of bamboo grass. A trio of sika deer flee for cover, barking cries of discontent to warn other members of their pack about the encroaching intruders. Paul and I reach the summit just before 5pm under the veil of mist. Sweat clings to my shirt as I take a drink of water to replenish the lost fluids. Despite the slight humidity, temperatures are comfortable, hovering around the mid-20s at this altitude.

With a 6pm dinner call, we retreat back towards the forest, only to be halted by a break in the clouds as the stubborn fog finally begins to lift. A bird’s-eye view directly down into Iya Valley, beaming with angelic light in the fading rays of the day. Tsurugi sits just opposite, entangled in its own battle with the cloud.

It is for these moments that truly make an excursion to the mountains worthwhile.

For all the times I’ve been caught in the cloud’s thick grasp, I occasionally get lucky and get the timing right. As the light begins to fade, so too do we begin our retreat back to civilization. A hearty meal of pork shabu-shabu hot pot goes down well, topped off with a generous helping of zosui rice that leaves the belly full. After dinner Paul and I retreat outdoors to take in the stars and relish in the comfortable temperatures. It really is possible to escape the summer heat by heading to the highlands of Shikoku.

 

I feel violated, a victim of a robbery I knew was coming but was not completely prepared for. While I thought the thieves would access the motherlode via the lower extremities, I had forgotten rule #1 of hiking in the mountains of Ōhara: watch your head. So, as I wipe the blood from my abdomen, I reflect upon my crucial mistake.

Ted pulls his car into a small lot just off route 477 in the tiny hamlet of Momoi in northern Kyoto. It is just before 8:30 as the morning cloud conceals the piercing heat of the rising sun, a day which threatens to bring temperatures in the upper 30s. Our task is simple: a quick loop up Mt Naccho, the final of the 10 peaks of Ōhara and a chance for me to stretch the legs after self-quarantining for half the year. Mid-summer and blood-thirsty leeches go hand-in-hand in these stretches of cedar-choked hills, so I tighten the cordage on my summer gaiters in order to keep the thieves out of my shoes and trousers. William, in true Aussie fashion, opts for the t-shirt and shorts approach, while Ted feels confident in his long trousers and nimble reflexes.

The three of us stop off at a small nondescript shrine adjacent to our parking space and offer a quick greeting to the mountain gods. William spots the first of the leeches descending the moss-smothered staircase with the grace and agility of a miniature Slinky. This one looks fully grown and well-fed, feasting on the inadvertent handouts of the shrine worshippers. We retreat back to the safety of the asphalt and walk through the sleepy village to the trailhead. Ted offers his respects to the grave of a fallen naval soldier, timely it is on the cusp of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.

The trailhead is soon reached, marked by a handmade sign for ナッチョ. Our peak goes by two names, the first of which is 天ヶ森 or heavenly forest, but it is this other name in katakana that intrigues us all. Where did it come from and what does it mean? It is in these forests that we seek answers to our questions.

A meandering forest road ushers us past a collection of discarded refrigerators and other appliances rusting away beneath the moss. Perhaps ナッチョ is an obscure Kyoto-dialact term for neglect. While those thoughts float around in my head, the relatively cool temperatures afforded by the cloud cover provide us the opportunity to make good work of this abandoned road to nowhere. Using the GPS to help show us the way, we leave the road on an unmarked path switchbacking its way through the upper reaches of the cedar plantations to the summit ridge alive with the lush greenery of an untouched swath of hardwoods.

With cedar on our left and deciduous trees to the right, we straddle the ridge, enjoying the contrast of the conflicting forestry policies of the neighboring villages. The trail leads above the forest road towards an unmarked summit before cutting a sharp right for a short traverse below the ridge with intermittent vistas to Lake Biwa in the east. The sun shines through gaps in the clouds, so the pace is swift yet relaxed, and just one hour after leaving the car the summit of the 813m peak is reached. We celebrate as any mountaineer would – by breaking out the nachos!

The tortilla chips are spread between us, with a cup of store-bought nacho cheese dip that looks unnaturally green and has the taste and smell of a neglected pickle. Ted screams in disgust, kicking himself in his haste for accidentally purchasing the guacamole version of the dip instead of the savory fondue con queso. We stick to just the chips themselves, be it as it is still just 9:30 in the morning and way too early for a filling lunch. Summit proofs are snapped as the clouds threaten to burn off completely, forcing us on the move to escape the heat.

Instead of returning down the same trail, a track to the northeast sticks to the ridge and meanders along the undulating contours of the mountain range. Well-marked with pink tape in places, followed by a tricky exercise in route-finding past a lush valley and along an adjacent ridge to reach Mitani-tōge. A left turn here off the ridge leads through a narrow rope-lined traverse above a mountain stream. The track is wet and apparently filled with leeches, who take advantage of our slow, absentminded descent to commence their heist. As we reach the forest road, Ted feels a pinch on his leg, lifting his trousers to reveal the blood-sucking culprit feasting on a vein of red gold.

As I laugh at Ted’s expense, I too feel a pinch on my belly just below my liver. Lifting my shirt, I find the leech firmly attached to my midriff – how it got there I can only surmise, but neither thought is very comforting. Ted offers a bandage so I can keep the oozing of blood off of my one and only shirt. William, the one left most exposed in his shorts, has not one leech attached to his legs. Whatever he ate for breakfast I would like to know, for it must surely be a leech-repellent.

As we reach the outskirts of Momoi village, an abandoned elementary school sits idle yet well-kept. It’s likely been converted into a community center/evacuation shelter for the local residents. Next door, a stone monument has been erected to a fallen air force soldier – for such a small village to have two fallen war veterans is a testament to just how many available men were forced to do the emperor’s dirty work. I scan the monument, hoping that perhaps this gentlemen went by the name of Mr. Naccho but to no avail.

The car ride back to town is smooth, and even after a quick dip in the river I could still make it back home by 4pm, in time for a refreshing shower to wash away the grime. As I strip off my hiking gear, I notice the upper part of my shirt and rucksack are covered with blood, and in the mirror I spot the kissmark left by a leech right on my juglar! The leech must have parachuted down from the trees while I was navigating that narrow traverse above the ravine. Perhaps it had its fill and dropped off inside my shirt, had a short nap, and then started feasting again on my belly. Or likely there were two different leeches indulging themselves on my succulent B-positive blood cells.

Clean and refreshed, I use my sleuthing powers and old man Google to investigate the origin of the name Naccho. The most likely explanation is a local dialect for the word Nassho (納所), the office for collecting land taxes in the form of rice. Perhaps the local villagers would climb this mountain to escape from the tax collectors or perhaps they would set up a lookout so they could see when the bakufu were arriving from Edo. Or it could have much older connection with Hieizan and Heian-era Kyoto. Regardless, the mountain is apparently on the list of strange mountain names in Japan, and attracts hikers with the sole purpose of climbing the Chinmeizan (珍名山).

 

 

The Ōhara 10 – Minago

After reading Ted’s harrowing account of a recent ascent of Kyoto’s highest peak, I thought it prudent to give a recap of my groundbreaking ascent up Mt. Minago. Let us enter the vaults and take ourselves back to May 2011. While northern Japan begins to pick up the pieces after the March disaster, I team up with trusty companion John for an excursion into uncharted waters. The Kutsuki-bound bus deposits us in a tiny hamlet awash in late plum blossoms. After crossing route 367, the dilapidated forest road leads to the trailhead at Ashibidani bridge. The kanji, translating as “foot and tail” valley, is soon to live up to its name.

A series of log bridges, over waist-deep waters, ferry us safely up the first set of rapids to a well-defined track on the right bank of the river. Without these fastened crosswalks, it would surely be a foot and tail exercise hopping up, over and most likely through a set of oblong boulders. Some time between 2011 and our current CoVID times, a series of typhoons and floods have swept through the valley, toppling trees with the whipping tail of the wind and kicking away these bridges with their swollen feet. Had I known the current condition of the track, I surely would have given Ted advanced warning.

The footbridges give way to fixed ropes strung across the river at strategic crossing points. That, coupled with generous decorations of pink tape on the trees, mean navigation is merely an afterthought. The wild, untouched valley we climb is truly stunning in its cedar-deprived beauty: these narrow gorge walls are no match for the tree plantation owners, who leave this sliver of untrodden Kyoto be.

Voices in the distance entice John and I to pick up the pace, and sure enough, we soon run into a quartet of young Japanese hikers out on an excursion. We naturally join forces, with John and I taking the lead as we follow the river to its source and then navigate a headwall of towering beech trees still yet to sprout their summer-green cload. It takes nearly an hour of zig-zagging up the final section of track, past swaths of fringed galax in full bloom, to reach the summit of Kyoto’s highest point.

The unmistakable hump of Mt. Buna-ga-take sits directly opposite our vantage point, with the last stubborn patches of snow clinging firmly to the exposed northern slopes. Our sextet clan perch ourselves on a flat patch of summit, chatting away about mountains while sharing chocolate and hot bowls of soup prepared by Aki, the leader of our recently-merged group. We pore over the maps and eye three possible descent routes, neither of which are clearly marked.

Just south of the high point, a signpost marked teradani (temple valley) is affixed to the tree, so we head just right of this and into and down a narrow trail affixed with tape skirting the edge of the scented flowers of an andromeda bush. We switchback down through a section of planted cedar smothered in colored plastic tape. This tape is either to tell the harvesters which trees to fell or which trees to keep. I must confess that I have never seen these genocidal workers in action so I can never be sure what function the tape has other than the break up the monotony of the terrain.

The cedars once again give way to deciduous hardwoods, and after losing a couple of hundred meters of elevation, we reach the log bridges ferrying us back to civilization. From here’s is a simple walk along a gravel forest road lined with yaezakura trees to finally arrive at Taira bus stop.

We exchange contact information with the other hiking group and check the bus schedule. With over an hour to kill before the next ride back to Kyoto, John and I use our thumbs to flag down a ride all the way back to Demachiyanagi. It’s a shame that such a lofty mountain has fallen into disuse and neglect. You would think that someone in the region would care enough to nurse Kyoto’s highest mountain back to health, but perhaps we’ll all have to wait until the entire human population rids itself of its other health problem first.

So there you have it – a brief recap of a hike nearly a decade ago. At that time I was focused on the Kansai Hyakumeizan, and Minago happened to be peak #38 (and technically speaking, my first of the Ōhara 10). Anyone attempting to climb Minago in 2020 and beyond had best heed the advice of Ted and stay far away from the valley of foot and tail, and you will surely lose your footing and end up on your tail (or worse, to a place that rhymes with tail).

 

 

 

Back in 2013, Ted and I traversed along the ridge between Hieizan and Ōhara on a hot and sticky summer day. Instead of traversing directly on the ridge, the Tokai Shizen Hōdō cuts through the lower valley to Yokawa before rejoining the main ridge at a junction with the Kyoto Isshu trail. I double-check the route that Ted and I took and cross reference it with the list of the Ōhara 10 and yes, it looks like another trip is necessary in order to walk along the true ridge connecting Mizui and Daibi, two more of the elusive 10. So in early December I once again find myself aboard that Demachiyanagi-to-Ōhara bus that snakes along route 367, but just outside of the village I alight at the aptly named Tozanguchi bus stop for the long climb up to the ridge.

This tozanguchi, of course, refers to one of the side trails leading to Hieizan, the land of the Tendai faithful. Before the ropeway was built on the Kyoto side of the mountain, this was one of the main tracks up the peak, but here in the overcast sky of early winter I find myself with no one other than a gentle breeze pushing in from the west. The route is named the Ganzan Daishi (no) Michi, a route connecting Oogi village in Shiga Prefecture to Yase in Kyōto via the Ganzan Daishi Hall in Yokawa. Gazan Daishi, otherwise known as Ryōgen, is the 9th century monk best known for overseeing an army of purported armed mercenaries vowed to protect Hieizan from rival Buddhist factions. Perhaps this very route was staffed by hidden assassins during the more turbulent times in the history of the Tendai sect. If such ghosts haunt these hidden reaches of this sacred peak, I will soon find out.

The path climbs steeply above route 367 with vistas back across the valley toward Hyotankuzure lathered in late autumn hues. At a weather-beaten jizō statue the path splits: the right fork leads up the kurodani to Seiryūji temple while to my left the trail continues straight to a mountain pass just below Mt Yokotaka. The Lions club have done hikers a great service (or some would say disservice) by marking the route with shiny metal signposts affixed at roughly every 200 feet along the ever steepening route. I pick up the pace, confident that, like most trails in Japan, the #10 signpost will place me comfortably on the ridge.

With a soft coating of wet foliage under my feet and the comfortable sound of solitude guiding my thoughts I fall into that tozan trance, pausing briefly to snap photos of the surprisingly pristine forest. Oak, chestnut, hemlock and fir trees tower over the constricted valleys of Yase, awing me in their sheer beauty. This is in great contrast to the cedar smothered western face of Hieizan. I guess this steep terrain is too much for the forestry service to farm.

After a steady climb of close to an hour I finally reach signpost #10 but am nowhere near the top of the ridge, so I shrug my shoulders and push on through the last of the autumn leaves clinging tightly to the bowed branches above. The gradient finally relents after signpost #13, as the snaking switchbacks give way to a narrow traverse on the side of a valley marred by the toppled trees of a recent typhoon just below the true summit ridge. A few more minutes of gentle climbing and I reach the mountain pass, where the Kyoto isshu trails and Tokai Shizen Hōdō paths diverge. The Kyoto trail continues along the ridge to Yokokawa while the Tokai drops down to Yokawa.  A trio of ancient statuary greet me at this junction, along with a Eureka moment of realization that this is exactly where Ted and I rested back in 2013. If only we had continued along the Kyoto trail at this very junction would my ascent of Mt Mizui have been complete.

The summit of Yokotaka is now within arms reach, so rather than rest at the junction I push on through a maze of exposed tree roots to find a toppled log on the summit awaiting me, a perfect place to rest the haunches and endulge in a late morning snack. Yokotaka feels like an Ōhara 10 summit, but somehow has been left off the list. Perhaps there is some geographical designation to these lists of peaks, meaning they have to reside withing a certain radius of Ōhara village. Or better yet, perhaps the list makers did not ascent my path of choice and have left Yokotaka to her own vices and free from the Ōhara baggers.

Northward I turn, dropping off the southern face of the peak toward Oogi-tōge, basically running parallel to the path that Ted and I took in 2013. While we opted for the lower road to Yokawa, I enjoy the tranquility and the beauty of the deciduous forest laid bare by the frosty gales of winter. To my leftI can glimpse views of the Kyoto skyline, while on my right I spy the snowcapped Suzuka mountains floating off on the horizon through a wall of muted gray cloud. It is just a short drop and steep climb to the tree-covered summit of 794m Mt Mizui, my 6th of the Ōhara 10 and the highest elevation of the day. A row of benches on the broad summit beckon me over, so I eat the remainder of my lunch while glimpsing the tip of a very white Mt Horai off to the north.

Into the cedar forests I reluctantly descend, for the proximity of the Hiei Driveway gives the loggers easy access to a motherlode of monocultural delights. My progress is halted by the sounds of a diesel engine and the crunch of a cedar tree being sucked of life by a giant excavator. Such environmental destruction would normally set me off, but every toppled cedar is one less source of pollen to poison my lungs. I just hope the tree thinning experiment by this bored construction worker (it is a weekend after all) will not result in more cedar saplings to replace the trees taken by the Komatsu regime.

Yellow tape marks wrapped around cedar trees soon catch my eye, printed with the English letters Biwako Hira Hiei Trail. I take a photo for post-hike investigation and do find that a new so-called ‘Long Trail’ is being constructed to connect Kutsuki village in Shiga to Kyoto along the Hira and Hiei mountain ranges. The 60km route takes in 15 peaks above 1000 meters in elevation, including Buna-ga-take, and the rest of the afternoon I will be following this route over to Mt Daibi. It sure seems like a worthy traverse in good weather, as Hakusan, Ontake, and part of the Japan Alps can be glimpsed on days with good visibility.

Oogi-tōge sits on a saddle below the summit of Mt Ono and marks the place where both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen drop off the ridge down to Ōhara, but I stick to the ridge into unexplored territory. The map time allocates 90 minutes to reach Mt Daibi, so I slow down the pace and take in the views through a massive clear cut section of trail. Mt Ibuki and Mt Ryōzen both float above low-lying clouds, gleaming white in the muted colors of the afternoon. If not for the blue hue of the horizon you could easily mistake the scene for a black-and-white movie, as even the surface of Lake Biwa lies still and gray in this eerie hour of the afternoon.

I soon reenter thick forests of cedar as the sun finally breaks through the clouds briefly before ducking back down for cover. The summit of Mt Ono sits in a small pocket of deciduous growth spared from the greedy hands of the forestry service as I once again pause to refuel for the final climb of the day. The Lions club once again ensures that no one will get lost on this section of path, which soon drops and follows a concrete forest road along the ridge for most of the way anyway. Once off the pavement, the ridge turns wild and narrow, the most exciting section of track of the day. I soon pop out on the summit of Daibi and reward myself with a fresh brew of coffee and chocolate.

An unmarked trail leads off the summit plateau due west, so I carry the GPS in my hand while traversing on a narrow spur before commencing a knee-knocking descent down towards Ōhara village. It is a short descent to the top of a narrow gorge lined with a series of waterfalls. I soon reach San-no-taki and carefully descend via a series of metal chains and ladders. I soon enter a very narrow and constricted valley choked with toppled trees and typhoon debris. All signs of a working trail are gone, so I climb atop one of the trees to peer further down the gorge and see tape marks at the end of a maze of fallen cedars. I work my way over, under, and sometimes through an absolute mess of a disaster zone. Perhaps the forestry people could stop cutting down perfectly healthy trees and forage for wood among the thousands of trees destroyed during last several years of ravaging typhoons.

Once out of the mess, I descend down an exposed trail past two more waterfalls before reaching a paved road that leads down to Sanzen-in. I never knew such thrilling scenery sat on Ōhara’s doorstep and the adrenaline rush from a sketchy end to the hike begins to wear off as I reach the entrance to Sanzen-in, Ōhara’s crown jewel. I fork over the entrance free and reach the main garden, splurging on a bowl of fresh maccha while sitting on the engawa taking in the moss-covered scenery. With so few people around this time of year, I really relish in the quiet surroundings and lack of tourists. Little do I know that just 4 months later this very temple will be shuttered to protect itself from a global pandemic changing the modern world as we know it.

 

The good thing about these Ōhara 10 peaks is that many lie in close proximity, meaning you can string together multiple mountains that are situated on the same ridge line without having to come back time and time again. Jesse, Junjun and I board an early morning Ōhara-bound bus packed to the rafters with foreign tourists and weekend daytrippers. We stand for the 50-minute journey as the bus works its way up the meandering curves of route 367 to the newly refurbished bus terminal. Pausing briefly to rest the haunches and relieve the bowels, we follow the signposts in the direction of Jakkō-in temple for just a couple of minutes until reaching an overgrown track affixed with a wooden sign for Yakesugi.

The dense undergrowth gives way to – you guessed it – a dense forest of cedar. If I had a tank of gasoline and a match I could really make this mountain live up to its name. A smattering of red pine trees break up the monotony as the ridge line is soon breached. A quick dip to a saddle followed by a stead climb leads up to the summit of 717m Yakesugi. Through a small clearing on the southern face we take in a bird’s eye view down to Ōhara and fuel ourselves with steamed chicken, guacamole, and hummus prepared by the skillful hands of Junjun.

Dropping down the western face of the mountain through the green canopy of early June, the three of us make good time and arrive at the main junction that leads to the Konpira ridge line. The true splendor of the Ōhara mountains shines forth as the sun lathes the spur in muted shadows accompanied by that warm gentle breeze that precedes the start of the rainy season. This is by far one of my favorite times of the year to hike – still pleasant enough without the stifling heat and humidity soon to follow.

The next peak on the ridge is nothing more than a tree-lined hump in an otherwise nondescript location. Despite the relative lack of effort, we do settle in for a leisurely break while talk shifts to psychedelics and altered states of reality. Talk mind you, for such indulgences are not looked on kindly by the stringent drug laws of this land. Mt Suitai does feature in the Tales of Heike, so despite its modest 577m stature, it might appeal to history buffs looking to walk in the paths of fallen samurai.

We push up higher up the ridge, for perhaps my 3rd or 4th ascent of Konpira. A junction sits just below the summit plateau, where paths fan out in a few directions. Without a bit of GPS intuition it would be easy to miss the triangulation point. The main trail to the high point ascends  to a shrine and along a craggy ridge of eroded rock and typhoon-pummeled trees. A rock formation affords pleasant vistas through the hazy summer skies toward Kyoto city, but we push on, dropping to a saddle before the final climb to the tree-covered top, my fifth peak of the Ōhara 10 and halfway to my goal.

Retreating back to the junction, Junjun takes the lead on the broad ridge past the unmarked junction that leads to the top of rock face popular with local climbers. The contours constrict as the path drops abruptly to the mossy precincts of Kotohira shrine before switchbacking down to a lovely stream that leads us out to the main road to Shizuhara. Just before reaching the road we pass an elderly hiker who inquires about the leech conditions on the trail we had just descended. Apparently the blood thirsty invertebrates wreak havoc on summer hikers, so we quietly congratulate ourselves on our timing.

The stretch from Shizuhara to Kurama follows both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen Hodo  and makes for a more pleasant setting than fighting off the tourist crowds of neighboring Ōhara. A row of vending machines provide much-needed liquid refreshment before the long climb up Yakko-zaka. The lack of shade forces up to our feet but not for long, as the towering cryptomeria trees of Shizuhara Shrine beckon us, as does the adjacent restroom facility that satisfies our call for nature.

It is a long steep climb, mostly on a concrete-lathered excuse for a mountain trail and past a monstrous construction zone marked by a fortress of clear-cut hillside: either this is typhoon-damage removal or, more likely, the construction industry’s attempt to tame Mother Nature the Lioness. We push on, reaching the pass under a heap of sweat in the fading daylight. By the time we reach Kurama station we are in need of a shower and some serious refreshment.

With the halfway point in my Ōhara 10 quest, I turn my attention to the eastern ridge of Hieizan and the mighty Mt Daibi.

Iwakura station is but an insignificant little blip on the Eizan Railway connecting Demachiyanagi to the sleepy hamlet of Kurama in northern Kyoto city, but for William and I, it marks the start of a journey into uncharted hills. Hills which once provided a hidden passage between Kyoto and Ōhara before the advent of the automobile. The two of us set off in mid-December for the summit of Hyōtankuzure, a peculiar peak rising to the modest height of 532 meters and included on the list of Ōhara 10. We leave Iwakura under sunny but chilly skies as we navigate the back streets in search of the mountain trail, marked by a faded wooden signpost affixed to a concrete electrical pole by someone with a penchant for wirework.

Hyōtankuzure, or literally ‘toppled gourd’, is one of the more unusual mountain names in Japan, and its origins are unclear, but a local legend reveals that the shape of the peak resembles a gourd split in half and laid on its side, such is the elongated profile of the peak when viewed from neighboring Hieizan. We will be walking along the entire length of the calabash, hoping for some tiny morsels of sweet succulent scenery in this unexplored corner of Kyoto.

Cedar trees as dense as they come soon yield to a deciduous forest recently laid bare by the strong gusts of late autumn – the fallen foliage softens our footsteps along a well-laid path following the contours of the sloping hillside. Through gaps in the bare branches we stand transfixed by vistas looking straight down on Iwakura and further afield to the ridges on the western edge of the city.

A junction is soon reached on the main ridge, where a blanket of fallen pine needles cushions each footstep through patches of quickly melting snow. We turn left, following the tape marks to the crest of the ridge and the summit of our target peak. A small clearing provides a snow-capped glimpse Mt Horai overlooking the valley, while due east the towering face of Hieizan looks tantalizingly close at hand. William and I pause briefly for a mid-morning snack while bathing in the soothing rays of sunlight under the watchful eye of a miniature snowman.

We retrace our steps back to the junction and continue south along a rarely used trail with unmarked junctions fanning out on either side of the ridge. Our map is affixed with the kanji character 迷, indicating that it is easy to get lost, so we use our GPS devices to double-check our gut feelings as to the proper route. We know that the trail meanders in a southernly direction and after passing through a lovely section of lingering autumn foliage the ridge broadens and turns wild, the kind of untouched wilderness you rarely find so close to the city.

Mesmerized we are by the tranquility and isolated feel to the ridge, so we continue climbing a slope directly ahead where the path seems to peter out into a clearing with splendid vistas of the entire city. This is easily one of Kyoto’s best mountain trails, yet so few visitors seem eager to explore anything that hasn’t been written up in the tourist literature. That suits us just fine, as such hidden spots should remain out of reach except to only the motivated few.

On the far side of the clearing we somehow pick up the trail again, ducking back into a hardwood forest with clear signs of recent ursine activity. Some trees get off easy with just a few claw marks, while others are torn apart by a feisty bear with a probable termite infatuation. We are just a kilometer from civilization, but I guess animals don’t care about these things when their stomachs are empty.

Further along the meandering ridge we reach a junction and drop down toward a secluded shrine nestled against the forest. It only takes about 10 minutes to reach the upper sanctuary of Sudō-jinja, built to commemorate the 8th century prince Sawara Shinno. A gravel promenade leads to route 367 and the short walk to Miyakehachiman station. Future hiking parties may find it more rewarding to start from Ōhara and climb along the lesser-explored northern face of the gourd before continuing along the ridge to our finishing point. Just don’t forget to bring the GPS.

 

I thought my snowshoe hiking was done for the season. With temperatures already exceeding 20 degrees and the snow in the Kansai region but just a distant memory, I resign myself to a few easy hikes while waiting for the pollen to subside. In comes a text from my friends Hisao and Haru in Nagoya with an invite to climb Mt. Nōgohakusan in southern Gifu Prefecture, but the approach becomes daunting due to construction work on the forest road leading to the trailhead. To make matters worse, Haru drops out due to family commitments, so Hisao and I brainstorm ideas for a new target. I casually mention that I have never climbed Mt Dainichi-ga-take in northern Gifu and he enthusiastically jumps into action.

Right on cue, a cold pressure system moves in over the Sea of Japan, depositing fresh powder on our peak in the days leading up to our scheduled ascent. I board a nearly deserted Shinkansen train to Nagoya, ground zero for the coronavirus infection slowly gaining ground here in Japan. Donning a mask and cautious of what I touch, I make it to Hisao’s local station and we head off to a discount shop to purchase food for the hike. We hit the hay early, as the alarm is set for 4:45am. We are on the road by 5am under clear skies tinted yellow by the pollen and aeolian dust wafting through the air. Dense fog takes over after that, guiding us over a mountain pass and down into a broad valley in northern Gujō city where we break out of the clouds and are greeted with a sight to behold –  the towering white face of Dainichi staring us straight in the eye.

Hisao guides his Honda to the trailhead shortly before 7am under a cloudless sky. Half a dozen other cars sit in the narrow snow-covered parking lot as we sort through gear in eager anticipation of our climb. We’ve chosen the summer route, a path that Hisao has climbed once before. When heading to the mountains in winter, it is best to go to a place that at least one member of your party is familiar with. He assures me that it’s a straightforward route, but as we stare up at the summit plateau, the distance looks formidable. Can we really make it up there in just 3 hours?

The snow is patchy at the start, but I tempt fate by strapping on my snowshoes in the parking lot, surmising that it will be easier here where the snow is just centimeters deep. A narrow gully awaits us as we place our first footfalls into the soft snow. Hisao has opted to keep his wakan strapped to his pack, a wise decision as we soon reach a steep climb dominated by tree roots sticking out from under a thin covering of snow. It is tricky work in snowshoes, but I maintain a careful placement of footsteps until the snow becomes deeper with each successive gain in elevation. A few steep sections later and we pop out on the main ridge glistening with fresh powder snow – not something we expect to find on the second day of spring.

There is a clear trace to follow, but such footsteps were not designed with snowshoes in mind, so I spend most of the time forging my own path directly adjacent to the footprints. I sink down a foot or so with each step, as the wet snow buries my boots, making each advancing step feel as if I’m carrying a barbell strapped to both feet. Hisao is amused by my struggles, for he makes good progress by following precisely the footprints made by the climbing parties ahead of us, but I keep the snowshoes strapped to my feet, for carrying them on my rucksack would just add extra weight to my upper body.

Luckily the snow condition improves as we reach Ippuku-daira, a level plateau located at around 1300 meters of elevation which marks the halfway point in our ascent. We pause briefly, shedding layers as I refill my water bottle and stuff morsels of food into my dry mouth. Hisao is completely covered in sweat, and our idyllic break spot would be perfect if not for the cacophony of blaring loudspeaker J-Pop piercing through the air from Takasu Snow Park across the valley. We’ve purposely chosen this route to avoid the ski resort, but we can’t escape its grasp entirely.

Into the lead my trusty guide Hisao walks, flowing seamlessly through the deep snow while I continue to struggle. My hard work is paying off, however, as the impressive figure of Hakusan floats high above to my right, completely caked in wintry white. It’s hard to keep my eyes off of her, entralled as I am by her sheer beauty. Hisao maintains his breakneck pace, keeping about a quarter of a kilometer ahead of me on the rambling ridge line. The snow condition finally improve at 1500 meters in elevation, turning into dry crystalline powder, the trail being sandwiched between a large cornice on my left and a windswept ice crust to my right. I make amazing progress on the icy crust as my snowshoes glide smoothly over the surface while Hisao postholes with each advancing step. The howling wind has covered up the trace of the hikers in front of us and I soon overtake my partner for the final climb to the summit. I look behind me and watch Hisao struggle up the last few meters of deep powder while I push on with ease.

As we crest the summit plateau, the full force of the winds pushing in from the nearby sea hit us head on, nearly knocking us off our feet. A handful of backcountry skiers brace themselves against the gale, which fortunately soon subsides. The skiers have come from the neighboring ski resort in search of untracked powder, but I am glad we chose the long way up. It feels much more rewarding to climb a mountain from its base than the cheat by taking the gondola most of the way up.

Hisao and I take in the views and sunshine while eating our well-deserved snack of ichigo daifuku, a savory strawberry smothered with bean paste and wrapped in a soft blanket of rice cake. Hisao swears that wagashi make the best hiking treats, and over the years I’ve seen him eating not only mochi and dango, but bars of calorie-packed yōkan as well. Perhaps there is something to his fueling approach after all. I usually just go for a Calorie Mate and a rice ball and some chocolate, but I’m willing to take a more traditional approach for my next mountain meal.

With the winds picking up and temperatures starting to drop, we run off the summit plateau, kicking balls of snow far ahead of us while blazing our own path down the main ridge that we had climbed earlier. Hisao, now donning his wakan, keeps pace in the steeper sections, but as the path flattens out he needs to stick to the main trail as he sinks too deeply in the deep powder. I make my own path through untracked sections of snow and we return to Ippuku-daira in just half the time it took us to ascend. We shed layers and rehydrate before continuing on our march back to the car. We play an entertaining game of who can last the longest before taking off their climbing equipment, and once we drop off the ridge down the spur the snow cover becomes sparse and the mud takes over. We call it a draw and sit on a toppled tree trunk to take off the snowshoes, which by now have accumulated quite a thick layer of wet snow. I strap them on the outside of my rucksack as we walk the remaining snow-free distance back to the car, arriving shortly after noon.

Such epic climbs can only be topped by a soak in a local hot spring, so Hisao finds a beauty of a place on his car navigation system while we settle in for a refreshing bath and filling tonkatsu lunch. The dining room overlooks a narrow valley and we both wonder if this place will survive the impending viral and economic storm about to be unleashed in Japan.

 

 

The Ōhara 10 – Mt Ama

Mt Ama sits snugly on a elongated ridge between the secluded hamlets of Kurama and Ōhara, a fitting place to start my exploration of the 10 peaks. I alight from the Eizan train under clear April skies and trot through the deserted streets of Kurama to the turnoff for the Tokai Shizen Hodō that provides passage to Shizuhara and beyond to Ōhara.

Yakko-zaka pass is reached in good time, a chance to wipe the sweat from my brow before taking a faint path on my right in the entirely opposite direction of my target peak. An unexplored trail on my map beckons, as in my recent hiking excursions I purposely seek out these smaller, lesser known trails literally off the beaten path. Red tape marks affixed to the trees help guide me through a thick, neglected hardwood forest. Free from any sort of regular maintenance, it soon becomes a fruitful exercise of climbing up, over and sometimes through toppled timbers and head on into a labyrinth of sticky spider webs, quickly reminding me of why I am less-than-enthusiastic about hiking in the early summer.  After a false summit, the path flattens and reaches a stone stupa adorning the summit crest of Mt. Ryūō . Here, through a gap in the trees, I find what I have long sought – a clear view across the valley directly down on Kurama temple. 

Exultation reached, I slither back to the pass for a quick rest before heading on the main path along a broad ridge teeming with new greenery. Mountain azaleas add a touch of pink and purple to the proceedings as I scoot along a deserted trail on unfamiliar terrain. These hidden stretches of northern Kyoto city are truly magical, as even on weekends you’ll be hard pressed to run into other hikers. I continue at a steady pace, slashing spider webs with my trekking poles as Mt Kibune keeps watch across a parallel ridge, with the slender village of Kurama sandwiched between. I only gaze upon this spectacle in small snippets, as the spring foliage has once again begun to fill the gaps between the canopy overhead. A winter ascent of this ridge must truly provide some breathtaking scenery. 

It takes nearly two hours along a very pleasant undeveloped section of forest to reach a small clearing as a lone Japanese hiker sits on a log just opposite Amagatake’s summit signpost. We immediately commence in tozan banter, that familiar mix of peak namedropping and quizzing of climbing experience that encompasses nearly every conversation you encounter over mountaintop lunches. It soon becomes clear that my companion is a very experienced mountaineer, so I hit him up for some local knowledge. “The rhododendrons are in full bloom at the moment, so I recommend taking this route down” explains my guide, pointing to a dotted trail on my map named, appropriately enough, shakunage one. How can one resist the temptation to hike rhododendron spur in the height of the flower season?

Armed with this bit of insider knowledge, I drop off the northern face of Mt Ama and immediately hit a dirt forest road carved into the steep hillside, literally within spitting distance of the top. It’s a bit of a buzzkill to climb a mountain from a long undeveloped ridge only to find such desecration on a more developed face. I stay on the left shoulder of the deserted road, reaching a spur trail to my left that leads to a clearing pierced with an electrical pylon. At least the lack of trees do provide a soothing vistas toward Kyoto to the south.

I retrace my steps back to the road and engage in a bit of hide-and-seek with the trail. I follow a faint path to the east that isn’t marked on either the paper maps nor on my GPS. That inner hunch takes over, and I soon retrace my steps just before the trail begins dropping down the eastern face. If this were a ‘proper’ trail you would expect to see a signpost or at least a tape mark or two. Back at the junction I peer over the crest of the ridge and spot the real trail traversing just below the northern crest. Pausing, I gather fallen tree limbs and erect a barrier over the false trail on the ridge in hopes of preventing future climbing parties from falling victim to the same mistake.

The route follows the contours of the spur before switchbacking through pleasant swaths of mountain azaleas in brilliant shades of pink. I make good progress through the tunnel of vibrant foliage and reach the turnoff for the rhododendron spur, denoted by a signpost affixed to a rhododendron bush in full bloom. My map says the traverse should take about an hour so I slow down the pace and take in the scenery on a section of track completely void of people. In Kansai it’s surprisingly easy to find deserted hiking trails, even on the weekends.

The up down undulations of the spur give the legs an extra workout, but my fatigue is mitigated by the subtle scent of the colorful flowers keeping watch over the track. This year the rhododendron have bloomed early, for I rarely find myself in the hills during the peak season of early June, turned away as I am by the humidity and stifling temperatures. I soon reach another electrical pylon affording panoramic views of nothing but wilderness in all directions. Who knew that such untamed beauty existed in these hills surrounding Ōhara village?

Descent comes abruptly via a no-nonsense, knee-knocking descent back down to a secluded valley. I reach a forest road and turn left and then right, passing directly past the trailhead of Naccho, another one of the Ōhara 10 peaks. I resist the urge to climb for now but know that I must come back here someday to complete my quest. The paved road I follow soon bisects route 367. A bus stop here reveals an infrequent bus schedule I have neither the time nor patience for, so I continue tramping down a quiet lane for close to 90 minutes until reaching Ōhara village, passing by a temple gate just outside the main town in quintessential Kyoto fashion.

With the first of 10 peaks now successfully summited, I pore over the maps to plot a course of action for the remaining 9 mountains of Ōhara. 

Osaka’s Mt Takao

Everyone has heard of Takaosan in Tokyo, but few know about Osaka’s majestic counterpart. Nestled in the southwestern part of the Ikoma mountains, Osaka’s Takaosan may be just a fraction of the height of its Tokyo neighbor, but it boasts an impressive grove of daffodils, providing a refreshing splash of color to the gray days of winter.

It is with these flowers in mind that I team up with my trusty hiking companion Minami, who is preparing for an upcoming winter ascent of Mt Karamatsu in the North Alps. She’s keen to stretch her legs and partake of the floral facade decorating the western face of the mountain. We meet at JR Namba station on a brisk Monday morning for the 45-minute journey to Kashiwara station on the edge of the Ikoma hills.

Our peak rises gently above our peering heads as we navigate the quiet narrow roads of the sleepy town. Shops lay shuttered, yet to awaken from their weekend slumber as shoppers have not begun to make their rounds. The Kashiwara city office is a gaudy display of Showa glory, reinforced concrete walls stained with the extravagance of a forgotten generation of pensioners. We turn left and then right, crossing under the dangling shimenawa of a polished stone torii gate marking the entrance to Nudehike Nudehime shrine, a peculiar name assigned to a sacred precinct with apparent Tendai origins. We reach the shrine grounds and make an offering to the deity before ascending the concrete road to the right of the worship space.

Fortunately we are soon greeted with a proper track tucking into the forest on our left, and soon reach a junction signposted as the entrance to the daffodil grove. A few daffodils lie amongst a swath of lush bamboo grass, enticing us with their presence. We take the left fork, darting into a dark forest of hardwoods on a muddy horizontal traverse through the foothills. Considering the proximity to the city, the cedar groves have been held at bay, the coffers at city hall likely filled with subsidies for residents instead of the forestry workers. This is in line with other observations about urban mountains, because even in Kobe city the Rokkō mountains are spared the cedar blight for the most part.

Minami and I soon reach a large clearing of bamboo grass on our left, with an array of daffodils in full bloom. Access is far from straightfoward, involving an improvised ascent of a stone wall and some careful footfalls between flower stalks. We take a few minutes to capture the scenery with our lenses but soon retreat back to the main trail to continue our upward progress. About a hundred meters further on, we find the mother lode: an absolutely massive daffodil grove, complete with a network of narrow trails so that visitors can get up and close with their petals of choice.

The lack of crowds here is surprising. If this grove were situated on the slopes of Tokyo’s Takao, there would be food stalls and a sizable queue just to enter the garden. Oh, and an entry fee wouldn’t be out of the question. Minami and I explore the vast network of paths completely alone, lost in the interplay of sun and shadow as the clouds whisk through the wintry sky. As I turn the corner on one such idyllic path, I stumble upon a cave entrance marked with an intriguing signpost. Here sits a kofun, or ancient stone tomb, likely dating from the 6th century. Little information is given about the person who was once buried inside, but an engraved map indicates that this is tomb #4 of 11 such graves scattered throughout the Hirano/Ōgata region. An academic survey of the sites is available here in Japanese for those with who are interested.

Rumbles in our tummies remind us that we had better get moving if we want to partake of lunch on the summit. Just above the grove we reach a junction and turn left towards the upper part of the shrine. A lone kannon statue stands gracefully on the top of an unmarked stone carving, a reminder that this peak was once the stomping ground of the esoterics. Adjacent to the altar. a faint path leads straight up a large rock face. I take the lead through the maze of boulders, reaching a clearing at the top of a cliff face flanked with a shinto shrine, the innermost sanctuary of the Nudehike Nudehime shrine we encountered at the trailhead.

We considered having our lunch break here, but the gales pushing in front the north were threatening to send up tumbling off into the abyss, so we push on through another collection of near-vertical scrambles until popping out onto a narrow summit stuffed with a regime of elderly pensioners twenty strong. There is absolutely no room for us to stand among the throng of an oversized tour group, so we wait patiently as they commence their descent. An elderly lady places a few Valentine’s chocolates in my left palm, grateful as I am for her choice of whiskey bonbons. Once the army departs Minami and I are once again left to ourselves, absorbing the warm rays of the sun as we stave off the chill from the strong wind gusts. The chocolate complements the coffee quite nicely as we gaze out over the flatlands of eastern Osaka.

Sitting here on our 277-meter-high perch, I think back to my ascent of Tokyo’s Takao many autumns ago, and still remember the overdeveloped chaos of the concrete-smothered summit. While it may not feature in the Michelin guide, we will gladly take Osaka’s Takaosan any day of the week. Minami and I already make plans for our 2021 winter ascent to once again partake of the flowers and views that can only be found in this forgotten corner of Osaka.